For city, lingering doubt and then delight

After 33-year wait, fans in Washington finally get their wish

Celebration

Baseball Returns To Washington

September 30, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The city got the call it had waited 33 years for yesterday.

Baseball told the nation's capital it was finally time to "Play Ball!" by returning to the city the major-league game that a generation of Washingtonians had grown up without.

Residents reacted first with an "Is this really happening?" sort of caution befitting a city that had endured the equivalent of three decades of rain delays waiting for baseball's return.

Since the Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season, there had been so many false starts that many residents said they could not help but remember hearing how the Houston Astros were going to be moved to the city eight years ago, or how the San Diego Padres were supposedly coming a dozen years before that.

"The carrots dangled on the stick for so long," said Ryland Mitchell, a real estate consultant from Silver Spring who grew up in Baltimore attending Orioles and Colts games. Over the past few weeks, Mitchell said, he found himself instinctively "wondering what's behind Door No. 3" to scotch the deal.

Now, he said he is thrilled that he will have a choice of attending games in Baltimore or Washington and can see teams representing both the National and American leagues.

For a long time this week, it wasn't clear that yesterday's celebration would happen. Local officials had reserved the main hall at the City Museum, a grand, hundred-year-old former library, for a victory rally of sorts. Dignitaries and former ballplayers were invited, but the city first needed to get the official word from Major League Baseball that the Montreal Expos were relocating here.

It was the perfect metaphor for years of waiting: a party on hold.

But shortly after 4 p.m., baseball commissioner Bud Selig pronounced the deal done and the party was on.

"Lets play two," D.C. residents might have said. Or, "Let's play 1,000," to make up for lost time.

The city seemed to have one remaining question: What took you so long?

"I have been waiting for this announcement for my whole life," said Ryan Bridge, 27, a Washingtonian who grew up in Waldorf. Yesterday, the restaurant manager at Georgia Brown's opened the door for city officials, business leaders and baseball executives to attend an after-party that followed the City Museum fete.

"I kind of grew up as an Orioles fan. Being from Maryland that's the team you rooted for," he said. "But an hour or more of driving to see a game doesn't really feel like a home team. I've always said if D.C. got a team, I would jump ship."

Few local baseball fans said they expected to wait this long for a ballclub.

"When baseball left here 33 years ago, someone asked me about it and I said the city would get another ballclub within five years," said Frank Howard, the former Senators star.

"Baseball's perception of the greater-Washington area was of a Southern, sleepy city. But this is a vibrant area," Howard said.

Howard said he looked forward to a new interleague rivalry with the Orioles.

So does Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who said, "I don't know what you'd call it. The I-95 rivalry? I think it would be a great rivalry. I think we would prevail."

Washington has lost teams twice in its history, and Williams had a message yesterday for Montreal fans: "We know what it's like to say goodbye to baseball. You're always welcome in Washington, D.C."

Williams wants the team to be called the Grays to honor a famed Negro leagues team of that name that played here.

Endorsing the mayor's choice is Daryn Cambridge, 23, a teacher from suburban Arlington, Va. "The Negro league is a part of American history that doesn't get talked about a lot," he said. "The Grays had an extremely successful record at Griffith Stadium."

Another option is to again call the team the Senators. But Cambridge said that name has "bad karma" because the Senators had so many losing records and because the District of Columbia has no senators representing it.

The last time the city saw baseball was 33 years ago when fans stormed the field at the Senators' last game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, and the disruption resulted in a forfeit to the New York Yankees.

Jim Molloy, 64, a lifelong D.C. resident, remembers that sad finale. He wistfully recalls how the fans rushed the field in the ninth inning to tear up pieces of turf and surround the players.

Nobody wanted the game to end.

Just a couple of decades before that, he had worked at the stadium, watching every game and smelling the bread baking at a nearby Wonder Bread factory.

"It's been 33 years," he said. "It's really so exciting. I'll still go to Orioles games. But this is what I've always wanted."

While paranoid fans might not want to hear it, a few obstacles remain before the chalk lines are placed on the field and the scent of popcorn wafts through the stands next year. The team will play at RFK Stadium while a new stadium is constructed.

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